Italy had had a disastrous war and it wasn’t getting any better. Even after Mussolini had been overthrown and the liberated area of the country re-allied itself with the Allies, the situation got worse. In the occupied north of the country the Germans turned against their former ally with brutal reprisals against those who opposed the Nazis.
In the south of the country, hundreds of miles from the front line, the situation should have been much better. Yet the economy had collapsed and the Allies did not have the resources to do much more than prevent outright starvation and keep order. People became desperate for food and a black market flourished. Norman Lewis, then an intelligence officer with the Allies, accompanied a group of soldiers on leave near Naples on 4th October. In a well known passage, he describes how many ordinary women had turned to prostitution:
Somewhere a few miles short of Naples proper, the road widened into something like a square, dominated by a vast semi-derelict public building, plastered with notices and with every window blown in. Here several trucks had drawn up and our driver pulled in to the kerb and stopped too.
One of the trucks was carrying American Army supplies, and soldiers, immediately joined by several from our truck, were crowding round this and helping themselves to whatever they could lay hands on. Thereafter, crunching through the broken glass that littered the pavement, each of them carrying a tin of rations, they were streaming into the municipal building.
I followed them and found myself in a vast room crowded with jostling soldiery, with much pushing forward and ribald encouragement on the part of those in the rear, but a calmer and more thoughtful atmosphere by the time one reached the front of the crowd.
Here a row of ladies sat at intervals of about a yard with their backs to the wall. These women were dressed in their street clothes, and had the ordinary well-washed respectable shopping and gossiping faces of working-class housewives. By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any one of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile. The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images.
They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no soliciting, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh. The boldest of the soldiers had pushed themselves, tins in hand, to the front, but now, faced with these matter-of-fact family-providers driven here by empty larders, they seemed to flag.
Once again reality had betrayed the dream, and the air fell limp. There was some sheepish laughter, jokes that fell flat, and a visible tendency to slip quietly away. One soldier, a little tipsy, and egged on constantly by his friends, finally put down his tin of rations at a woman’s side, unbuttoned‘and lowered himself on her.
Aperfunctory jogging of the haunches began and came quickly to an end. A moment later he was on his feet and buttoning up again. It had been something to get over as soon as possible. He might have been submitting to field punishment rather than the act of love.
Five minutes later we were on our way again. The tins collected by my fellow travellers were thrown to passers by who scrambled wildly after them. None of the soldiers travelling on my truck had felt inclined to join actively in the fun.